East Carolina ready for final step

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There are those losses that some coaches find easy to brush off. There also are those losses coaches have trouble getting over.

For East Carolina coach Billy Godwin, losing last year’s super regional series to North Carolina is one of them.

It also sets the tone for one of the most anticipated seasons in East Carolina history. It is the season many expect the Pirates to finally reach the College World Series.

“I sit here and talk to my players all the time about how special it is to get to Omaha,” Godwin said. “When you don’t reach your optimum goal, you kind of have to fear it and push yourself to work harder. That’s the situation we’re working with.”

With or without a CWS appearance, Godwin has been a godsend to the ECU program.

Turmoil led to former coach Randy Mazey’s dismissal in 2005, and the Pirates turned to Godwin.

At first, Godwin wasn’t real sure what to expect. He was the pitching coach on Mazey’s staff and didn’t know too many of the position players. It was a nerve-wracking situation.

But it didn’t take long for Godwin to get a good grasp on things.

Though Godwin only led the Pirates to a 33-26 record in ’06, the program appeared headed the right direction with recruiting improving. The Pirates made a statement in Godwin’s second season by compiling a 40-23 record and reaching the Chapel Hill Regional, where they fell short of a super regional.

ECU was again impressive campaign ’08 with a 42-21 record and a trip to the Conway, S.C., Regional. Once again, though, the Pirates failed to advance.

Then, last season, the Pirates shocked many by winning the Conference USA regular season title over Rice. They also earned a home regional and defeated South Carolina to advance to the super regional at North Carolina.

There, the Pirates seemed completely out of their element and the Tar Heels made easy work of them in just two games to advance to their fourth-consecutive CWS.

“After we lost to North Carolina last summer, I spent many nights out of my bed still working. I wanted to keep pushing this thing and grinding,” Godwin said. “It’s definitely a motivating factor [losing to North Carolina] for this season. Our goal is to be one of the nation’s last eight teams standing.”

Even with three-straight regional appearances and fresh off a super regional appearance, Godwin and the Pirates have their share of critics. Many believe they simply can’t knock down the barrier called North Carolina. They also believe the Pirates can’t win the big game and get to Omaha.

Godwin is not losing too much sleep over the programs’ detractors.

“I’d say it’s a good thing if people are giving us grief because we’re just on the cusp of getting to Omaha,” Godwin said. “I just tell our players if you keep knocking on the door, eventually that door is going to come falling down. It’s about staying focused and not letting the doubters distract you.”

Godwin enters his fifth season with the program and many things have changed since he took the reins.

The Pirates used to be an afterthought compared to some bigger in-state schools when it came to recruiting. But they are beating out some of those programs for top-tier in-state players. ECU also is beginning to beat out everyone for some players residing east of Interstate 95, which divides the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area from Greenville, N.C., home of ECU.

Also huge for the upcoming campaign is the return of outstanding hitters Kyle Roller and Devin Harris.

“I think it speaks volumes for our program that guys like Kyle and Devin want to come back,” Godwin said. “There were a few kids in the past I felt probably should have returned for another season. But now, I think we’re to a point as a program where kids really want to be here all the time. If Kyle and Devin didn’t believe in what we’re trying to do here, they would no longer be around.”

Baltimore selected Harris in the eighth round and his return is somewhat of a surprise. Roller, meanwhile, was a late-round draftee and chose to return for his senior season. Both players, though, are major reasons why the Pirates are expected to once again make a super regional, and perhaps finally reach the CWS.

“Knowing how close we were last season is always in the back of your mind,” Roller said. “My mom always said if you’re going to start something you might as well finish it. So here I am, ready to lead the Pirates to Omaha.”

Though the Pirates do have some tough holes to fill at the plate this season, putting together productive offenses always has been one of the program’s fortes.

The pitching staff also isn’t a concern. The Pirates welcome back a plethora of key pitchers headlined by Brad Mincey, Kevin Brandt, Seth Simmons, Seth Maness and Patrick Somers.

“You have to pitch to get to Omaha, and this is by far our best chance on the mound,” Godwin said. “Out of everything I like about this team, our pitching depth is probably the most impressive aspect of the club entering this season.”

Godwin and the Pirates are making no promises. They realize how difficult it can be to get to Omaha. But for a program with such a passionate fan base and rich baseball history, finally playing at Rosenblatt Stadium in the venue’s final season would be special. Actually, it would be perfect.

Following his team’s practice on Thursday, Godwin spoke with his players for more than 30 minutes in the outfield.

Godwin is ready. The Pirates also are ready.

This may be the season.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Feb 5, 2010